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Scandalous Rhetoric Before the Scandal:
The Growing Enron Debate

By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
January 14, 2002

Which comes first: the scandal, or the rhetoric surrounding it?

If the controversy over connections between the Bush administration and bankrupt energy trading company Enron is any indication, it's definitely the latter. While most Democratic politicians have been relatively careful to avoid direct suggestions of impropriety by the Bush administration so far, their liberal counterparts in the punditry have jumped ahead, taking the opportunity to make vague allegations of impropriety despite a paucity of evidence. And, as this rhetoric has become more intense, some conservatives have jumped to the defense of the administration with rhetorical tactics that are just as unfair.

Politicians staying cool

Some in the media have begun to debate an Enron scandal, assuming various improprieties that have not been demonstrated. Democratic politicians, by contrast, have been more restrained in their rhetoric. In fact, no one has even suggested that the Bush administration has engaged in illegal activity. While this may be part of a political strategy, as Ryan Lizza reported in The New Republic, most Democrats have been quite cautious even as investigations and hearings are being prepared. The strongest words may have been those of Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), who noted that, "It is now clear the White House had knowledge that Enron was likely to collapse, but did nothing to try to protect innocent employees and shareholders who ultimately lost their life savings." As there is no legal obligation for government officials to warn the public about the financial difficulties of a private company, however, Waxman is at most accusing the administration of poor judgment.

Liberal pundits warm things up

The evolution of the Enron scandal rhetoric started last month when several liberal pundits made poorly founded accusations at the first hint of wrongdoing. They saw a perfect target: a once-successful company with close ties to the Bush administration whose collapse caused many middle-class employees to lose their life savings while wealthy executives sold their stock at high prices.

These arguments, however, consisted largely of attempts to link Bush with Enron and suggestions of impropriety. As I pointed out in a post at the time, syndicated columnists Robert Scheer and Molly Ivins led this charge. Scheer suggested with no evidence that Bush administration officials may have been tipped off to sell their stock in the company. Absurdly, he also compares the case to Teapot Dome, a scandal from the Harding administration in which government officials broke the law in exchange for bribes. Not only is there no evidence of bribery in this case, however, but bankrupt Enron clearly was not saved by government intervention. Arianna Huffington later picked up the Teapot Dome comparison in her syndicated column, as did Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect. Ivins, meanwhile, said that partisanship was the reason that the media and Congress were not investigating the case, ignoring hearings already underway.

In the following weeks, Scheer has continued to spin the Enron case with reckless abandon. In a column on Christmas day, he makes illogical connections between the Enron collapse and President Bush's economic policy. Among the lowlights is Scheer's attempt to blur lines between Enron workers and the millions of unemployed, slamming Bush's opposition to a Democratic stimulus package by saying it would help workers who lost their jobs "because of the mismanagement and other acts of economic stupidity by companies like Enron." He even creates a new phrase, "Enron advisors," with which he attempts to discredit Bush's conservative economic policies by associating them with the company. A January 2 column also points out evidence of connections between the administration and Enron, including that Republican senator Phil Gramm's wife is on the Enron board, but again fails to prove that the administration had any role in the company's collapse. Nevertheless, Scheer combines these facts with his distrust of the President to conclude, "there is a cancer growing on the presidency ... it's [sic] name is Enron."

Both sides make the debate hot

In the past week, it has been revealed that Enron executives contacted Bush administration officials and discussed the company's financial difficulties last fall, leading to numerous questions from members of Congress and plans for hearings in the House and Senate. Although Bush officials apparently rejected requests to assist the company, the revelations about the calls and new allegations of wrongdoing by the company and its auditor, Arthur Anderson, have led more mainstream liberal pundits to weigh in with attacks on the Bush administration that echo Scheer and Ivins.

In his column last week, for example, Bob Herbert of The New York Times dances around the fact that there is no evidence that the administration did anything improper during Enron's collapse. In fact, his second sentence--"This is a scandal with a very broad reach and it has some of the wise guys in the Bush administration and other top Republicans trembling in their penny loafers"--is quite revealing. Herbert is implicitly admitting that the best argument he can muster is that some Republicans may be scared of what could happen to them. He goes on to note the well-known facts that Enron made large political contributions that went primarily to Republican candidates and that company executives met numerous times with the energy task force headed by Vice President Cheney. By the end of his column, Herbert can only manage a claim that Enron has donated to politicians "who could help the company escape close scrutiny of its more sinister activities" and that "[i]t will be interesting to find out [how closely Enron is investigated]." Once again, lots of innuendo, but no substantive allegations.

This trend could again be seen on political talk shows this weekend, as liberals implied a scandal, focusing in particular on the well-known fact that Bush had close ties to Enron CEO Kenneth L. Lay, a top contributor to his campaign. On CNN's "Capital Gang", Al Hunt suggested wrongdoing because the President tried to distance himself from CEO Ken Lay. Hunt paraphrases Bush as saying, "I didn't have much to do with him" and then says "when politicians start lying, you start wondering why." In fact, while Bush dissembled by saying Lay supported Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race, as Anthony York pointed out in Salon, the President did admit in a press conference that he "got to know Ken, and worked with Ken, and he supported my candidacy."

With liberals stepping up their attacks, conservative pundits have also entered the fray. The basic line of attack has been an attempt to turn the tables on liberals by pointing out that Enron also gave money to Democrats and had close connections to the Clinton administration. On "Capital Gang", Kate O'Beirne pointed out that Democrats got "hundreds of millions" of dollars from Enron and rhetorically asked "What if [Enron] got more favors [from Democrats]?" A recent New York Post editorial takes a similar tack, pointing out that many Democrats received donations from the company and that the Clinton administration helped it to secure a contract in India.

These commentators are attempting to break the Bush-Enron association and create a association between Democrats and Enron in its place. While Enron's connections to Democrats are certainly grounds for legitimate debate, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clinton administration or Congressional Democrats either. Also, the Post and O'Beirne are glossing over the reality of Enron's political involvement. While the company did give money to Democrats, the party received only 27 percent of the $5.8 million in political contributions made by Enron and its employees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Spin before scandal

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Enron debate is that it has entered high gear before there is any evidence of political impropriety. In fact, after a round of largely speculative back and forth this weekend, Enron is the hottest topic in Washington. In the highly polarized world of punditry, it appears that even the first hints of scandal are now enough to set off cascades of irresponsible rhetoric that can dominate the national agenda.

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Related links:
-Spin works its way into liberal harping on Enron (Ben Fritz, 12/13/01)

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